- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

A Northern Virginia lawmaker opposed to a sales-tax increase to fund transportation projects said this week the state is not doing all it can to solve traffic problems without raising taxes.
Virginia did not claim nearly $12 million in federal highway funds it was due and therefore should not ask residents for a sales-tax increase to fund transportation needs, Delegate James "Jay" O'Brien said during a news conference this week at the Fairfax County Government Center.
"These are funds that are available to you and me generated at the gas pump," said Mr. O'Brien, a Clifton Republican. "They should be made available to us particularly in [light] of the call for a sales-tax increase."
But Barbara Reese, chief financial officer of the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the state did not ask for the funds because it had no plans to use them within the strict timeline the government provides.
"I don't have a project that is ready to go that we could use that money for," she said in a telephone interview.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHA) allocates leftover nationwide transportation funds each August. Under the program, known as August Redistribution, states must apply for the funds and the government redistributes them based on need. Once the funds are distributed, the states are required to assign them toward a specific project by Sept. 30.
In 2002, the program redistributed $495.3 million to 49 states and the District. California received the most with $46.4 million. Maryland received $7.9 million, and the District was given $3.1 million.
Based on previous year's allocations, Virginia would have been eligible for approximately $12 million, Mr. O'Brien said. Mrs. Reese put this figure at $8 million. In 2001, Virginia received $6 million from the fund, when $255 million was available overall.
The FHA spokesman who deals with federal obligation authority funds was unavailable for comment yesterday.
VDOT is currently undergoing a major overhaul. Mrs. Reese began her job 10 days before the Aug. 9, 2002, filing deadline. She said because of her lack of time on the job when the application was due and the current budget woes of the state, she did not want to request funds that she would need to use under tight time constraints. Virginia currently faces a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.
Mrs. Reese said the state was not missing any opportunities because of the lack of funds.
Voters in nine Northern Virginia jurisdictions are going to the polls in November to decide whether to raise the sales tax from 4 cents to 5 cents per dollar to raise funds for regional transportation projects geared toward alleviating gridlock in the region.
Proponents of the transportation referendum, including Gov. Mark R. Warner who has made its passage the signature item of his first year in office argue that passage is needed because there are no additional resources available. Opponents, including Mr. O'Brien, argue that the state is not doing enough to ensure Virginia is getting its fair share.
While the additional $12 million from FHA would likely only build "an exit ramp," Mr. O'Brien said, he argued these funds prove the state is not doing everything it can.
"The issue is not just $12 million, it's in the context of a call for a sales-tax increase," he said.
But Ellen Qualls, Mr. Warner's press secretary, said that VDOT was left with no choice but not to apply for the funds, and that the department's failure to apply for them would not hurt the state or the referendum's chance of passage.
"It appears VDOT's hands were tied by the cash-flow situation from the previous administration," she said. "It has no bearing on the referendum."

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